Ableism and Audism: A Quick Guide



able·ism | \ˈā-bə-ˌli-zəm  \

Definition of ableism 

discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities


“Normal” people – that is the heteronormative the neurotypical and the able-bodied – are inherently discriminatory to anyone that is not “normal”. Now before we all lose our mostly normal heads at the suggestion that we may be excluding some of our differently abled fellow humans, let’s calmly consider the following scenario:

A Deaf individual is trying to check out a book at the library. Over the intercom, staff announce the closing of the library. Most humans will hear this, finish up their activities and leave. The “we’re closing” schtick is universal for most people. Or is it? Since the Deaf do not hear it isn’t actually universal, its only universal for the hearing.

So not hearing the universal sounds of closing, this Deaf individual keeps looking through the books unaware that a security guard is also looking through the books for stragglers. Security sees this human and calls out. This person doesn’t even flinch so the security guard calls out until he is close enough to tap his shoulder. This did scare the patron who drops his books to start using sign language. It is only at this moment that the guard ever considers the Deaf in terms of his job. Once his initial training was complete, he just never through of it again because he didn’t need to, not knowing any Deaf people himself.

The simple fact that “normal” people do not consider the differently abled – in this case a Deaf person – when creating a public space is ableism. It is discrimination, not harassment, not dehumanization, not a purposeful desire to hurt those with disabilities, but it IS discrimination. Whenever we create a public space, we must always remember that society is made of all kinds and should be accessible to all kinds. When we fail to be inclusive of the disabled, we wreak havoc on their emotions and decrease their opportunities. For if you cannot walk up the steps, you cannot partake in the building and its opportunities.  If you cannot hear, you cannot participate in conversations without ASL or an interpreter.

Imagine, having your prospects limited in these ways. Imagine being excluded simply because no one thought to add a ramp to a building or hire an interpreter for a public announcement. Consider another scenario:

A child is injured during PE and is unconscious. The school calls an ambulance to take him to the hospital. He wakes up and begins to sign. None of the hospital staff knows ASL and neither does the PE teacher. The interpreter is not allowed to interpret outside of the school as the interpreter is employed by the school, not by the Deaf child. So the child is at the hospital with a head injury, but no one can communicate with him in his native language. An interpreter is called but is several hours away. The child’s parents are on their way, however they do not know ASL either. The child primarily communicates with his/her parents orally; they speak, the child reads a single person’s lips at a time and then speaks the answer.

Lipreading is very demanding, and can be draining for the Deaf individual, and often the message is not completely taken in. This of course is untenable in a medical emergency, the patient must understand the information given to them or have help doing so. In this scenario lipreading fails and the child signals for pen and paper. Finally now the conversation may begin, but technically a medical interpreter should be present because it is a patient right. Using paper and pen is slow and difficult, but all that’s available to this child.



aud·ism | \ˈȯ-ˌdi-zəm  \

Definition of audism 

discrimination or prejudice against individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing


Both scenarios are examples of audism. Anytime the hearing community chooses not to be inclusive or insists that the Deaf community ingratiate itself with the hearing community is audism. For example, the library in the first scenario is audistic because it assumes all patrons can hear the announcement. As a public space, the library should have made a Deaf friendly announcement; like the lights turning on and off. Since they failed to do so, thinking only of the hearing patrons, they are audistic.

In the second scenario we see a variety of audistic behaviours, but most glaring is the fact that a child is surrounded by others that do not use ASL. By not having an interpreter in the hospital at the time of his injury, this child could not have his medical care explained or explain his symptoms in a way that makes sense to him. Hospitals are required to provide certified interpreters for those who speak limited or no english, this is especially true for Deaf individuals because of the ADA. But many times hospitals cannot comply due to interpreter shortage. In this case, familiy members may have to fill in until an interpreter arrives. However, in this scenario the parents do not share their child’s native language and cannot help. So what happens to the child in this medical situation? Well, he and his entire family and the hospital just have to muddle through.

To summarize, audism is the expectation that Deaf individuals must fit in with the hearing world because the hearing world will not remember to accommodate the Deaf.  It Some instances of audism are like the first, mostly an inconvenience to the Deaf individual but quickly resolved without harm. It is unacceptable and it is discrimination. Some audistic moments are like the second situation which is audistic throughout and leads to the harm of a child. From the school to the hospital to the parents themselves, from all angles the child and patient is expected to fit into a hearing environment without the ability to hear. A child’s healthcare was compromised. A child was alone without anyone he trusted and he could not communicate. Imagine the fear and confusion and trauma experienced by this child. It is unnaceptable and it is also discrimination.

Whether the audism is accidental, intentional, or systematic, it does not matter. Just because hearing people are not out terrorizing the Deaf community just because they can’t hear, does not mean that audism isn’t harmful. It is harmful. So how do we fix it? We respect and listen to the Deaf in our communities. We include them more by learning a few signs ourselves.

Founder of Signing Time Rachel Coleman said that “all it takes is for your hearing child to play with my Deaf daughter is for her to learn three signs…Hi.Friend.Play.” The same is true for adults. We should all learn a little ASL so that when we encounter the Deaf members of our community, they can at least be acknowledged with a “Hi, nice day, how you” or “coffee here good!” That little conversation is meaningful, so please consider trying American Sign Language in your family. Adults can use SignIt and littles can use Signing Time, Baby Signing Time, Potty Time, Rachel and the Treeschoolers, and Signing Time Sentences. Links are on the products page if interested.





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